Gun Violence and Public Health: Negotiating for Peace

“After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.” – Wallace Stevens

By Osefame Ewaleifoh

Three weeks ago, out of rage I wrote a piece about gun violence titled “let the bodies pile up”. Since then there have been six additional gun massacres on the national stage and many more here in Chicago- and the summer is only getting warmed up. In that initial piece, I make the literal and theoretical argument that until we find a solution for gun violence we might as well stop all “cleanup efforts” that hide the true consequence of gun violence in our community and let the bodies of victims of gun violence pile up on the streets. Due to the gory nature of that piece, we refrained from publishing that article. Still the rage remains, albeit transmuted.

gun violence in chicagoData from city of Chicago.

Few subjects on the national and international stage are as deeply polarizing as the question of gun violence. Everyone has a side, often with very good reason(s) to match. Ignoring the callously inept comments of Joe the plumber and the likes who argue that “Your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights to own and carry a gun”,  to make progress  on gun violence we must acknowledge that there are rational players on both sides of the debate. This is important because it is increasingly clear that the future of gun rights and public health must be negotiated based on mutual respect and consideration for opposing positions.

As a public health advocate living in Chicago, a city with a grim record of gun violence, my visceral reaction is naturally “ban all access to guns and stop gun violence”, however if we are honest to reality – that will never happen, not in the United States. The thorny question of managing gun access and gun violence is a natural consequence of living in a democracy – where everyone has a voice. No matter how disagreeable or incredulous the position – each voice must be listened to and respected. Thus while we see the overwhelming destructive effect of gun violence, we must respect the position of gun advocates – a difficult pill to swallow for public health advocates. In return, agencies that advocate for gun rights must be willing to absorb the full responsibility of enforcing the strictest measures to curtail the access and distribution of guns, this is only reciprocal.

Up till the Sandy Hooke elementary school Massacre I, (like most people) believed there was a red line and that if something really bad happened we as a society would be forced to reconsider our entire position on gun violence. I was wrong. Gun ownership is now so deeply woven into the American social fabric that we as public health advocates must re-evaluate our strategy and re calibrate our expectations and approach to addressing gun violence as a public health concern. Increasingly I am convinced that the war against gun violence will not be won on an emotional level born out of national grief and remorse over innocent children killed at school. It is increasingly clear that gun violence, like the nuclear Arms race between the U.S and the Soviets must be won-on the negotiating table, with adversaries partnering as allies towards a common cause.

 Our ability to negotiate out of conflicts is the only thing that keeps us as individuals and organizations daily from mutually assured destruction. The world has been saved from nuclear wars by simple conversations held over a negotiation table. Perhaps the time has come to negotiate rationally with all stakeholder implicated towards a better solution to ending or managing gun violence. In search of new solutions to navigate complex conundrums Dr. Roger Fisher and William Ury co-founded the Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP) in 1983(1) . Research from the HNP has changed our perception and approach to dealing with difficult negotiations and conflict resolution, both personally and professionally. In their international negotiations best seller “Getting to Yes” Fisher and Ury propose a model for “principled negotiation” as a path to bringing opposing factions to a workable resolution that is mutually agreeable to all involved (2). Perhaps this approach can be adopted in the current discussion on gun ownership and gun violence as we search collectively for a definitive systematic resolution to the current madness. This method of negotiation can be boiled down to four basic but straightforward points:

negotiation quadrant• People: Separate the people from the problem. In other words public health advocates don’t have a problem with the NRA, we have a problem of gun violence. Getting everyone on both sides to focus on the actual problem and not the perceived fabricated problems will open the door to serious progress. Furthermore focusing on specific people or agencies keeps the conversational emotional and personal, impeding our full capacity to work out unconventionally but potentially valuable partnerships.

• Interests: Focus on interests not on positions. Everyone has interests and for most corporate agencies the interest is often financial. For us health workers we have a clear interest in “saving lives”. As public health advocates we unwittingly expect everyone to do the “right thing” and save lives, even when that ignores their clear interests. Perhaps it is time to try to better understand the interests of gun rights advocates and incorporate those interests into the search for novel gun violence prevention efforts. It is also important to note that the interest of groups are often not monolithic, thus within the pro and anti gun rights camps there are multiple agendas and not every gun rights advocate shares the same position. Our ability to recognize and capitalize on these nuances of group and personal interests can significantly move the campaign to end gun violence forward.

• Inventing an option for mutual gain: While I hate to admit this, negotiations for peace and gun control must create and explore several new opportunities for mutual gain for both gun control and gun rights advocates. Little meaningful progress has been on gun violence because we fail to recognize and respect the desires and self-interests of each position. Once we identify what each side wants respectfully we must collectively proceed to find ways to satisfy both parties. Specifically this will mean new solutions that guarantee secure access to guns as well as the strictest possible regulations against gun distribution. Gun control advocates must ask – what do gun rights advocates actually want and how can we try to provide that? The same question must be asked by the gun rights advocates. While the financial motivation is more widely recognized in negotiations, finances can often serve as surrogates for a desire for 1) security 2) economic well-being 3) recognition and respect 4) a sense of belonging and 5) control over one’s life. To respect the interest of each party in the gun violence debate we must take each of these factors into consideration in creating new options for mutual gain. This is in direct contrast to our current win-lose approach, in which each side seeks to defeat the other.

• Objective Criteria: Having agreed on mutual interests and explored innovative new mutually beneficial solutions we must identify and agree on empirically verifiable mutually desired end results and standards. In this case it could be measures of gun violence. This tool will allow us to assess the effectiveness of mutually adopted positions. These simple mutually shared goals might create incentive to craft measurable strategies that protect individual gun rights while passing stringent regulations to regulate their indiscriminate distribution with the end goal being – the ending or reduction of gun violence.

No matter what side you take on the gun control conversation and what you believe, there remains common ground that we can still all agree on – A point of intersection in our Venn diagrams of conflicting interests and disagreements over gun rights. We can all still agree that no child should be shot in a classroom or in a movie theater. We can still all agree that no children in a summer camp must be rounded up and shot en mass. Despite our deeply held beliefs on gun rights or gun control, our place of common agreement should compel us to the negotiating table. It is important to acknowledge that while there are irrational factions and outliers in the gun violence debate, like Joe the plumber- there is a functional rational center – on both sides, that are willing to work together for a better solution.

An unlikely partnership

Just today gun control advocates found an extremely unlike ally in the NRA. Interestingly, in response to Texas gun rights advocates who have brought military-style assault rifles into businesses as part of demonstrations against gun control, the NRA has called these actions “downright weird”. Specifically the Institute for Legislative Action- a branch of the NRA, has called the demonstrations counterproductive to promoting gun rights, scary and “downright weird.” The NRA further stated that the demonstrations have “crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness” and that “Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners”. On a closer look this positions is not entirely shocking since the NRA recognizes there are lines that must not be crossed and looking foolish and inconsiderate  is ultimately  bad for business. This episode provides emperical evidence that the NRA and other major gun rights advocacy groups are rational players that must be engaged – as partners- in the fight to end gun violence. In this light the first step towards a sustainable and meaningful progress to end gun violence might be to identify and articulate this common shared goal, desire and objective. I am persuaded that it is at this unique  intersection  and point of agreement in the national dialogue on gun rights  and gun control (on the negotiation table) that meaningful solutions and partnership for ending gun violence will emerge.

ImageOur work on the negotiating table must be born out of the knowledge that we are all allies (no matter what side we take) to end gun violence. While it is difficult to conceive at this time, it is becoming increasingly clear that no meaningful progress on gun control will be achieved until diametrically opposed factions like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the coalition to stop gun violence stop undermining each other and work together – on mutually shared goals to address gun violence. The negotiation to end gun violence will not be immediately satisfactory to everyone and cannot be a winner takes all campaign. Compromises and sacrifices will be made but the goal to end gun violence must be pursued single-mindedly and attained no matter how long it takes.

Call for action:
In light of recent events and the growing public outcry for action to end gun violence we invite you to take action. A grieving father from the recent gun violence massacre in Santa Barbra started a ballot calling for action to end violence. We invite you to support this campaign and others promoting the campaign to end gun violence.

Join SCY:   SCY is an initiative convened Lurie Children’s and now has about 2000 partners in violence prevention.


1. The Harvard negotiation project.

2. Getting to Yes: Fisher and Ury. Pg 69.

3. The NRA calls open carry rallies down right weird.

4. Photo: Creative Commons



About NPHR Blog (339 Articles)
The is the blog of the Northwestern Public Health Review journal. The blog and journal are both student run and contain research articles, opinions, interviews and other content pertaining to public health.

1 Comment on Gun Violence and Public Health: Negotiating for Peace

  1. Wow.. I read your post earlier today and now just saw online that there was another mass shooting. I definitely understand why you wrote the original more passionate piece and I share your feelings on this issue. I admire how here you set your emotions aside and presented this framework for compromise. No one should be OK with people dying on this regular basis. It does feel like people are arguing FOR that.

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